25 years ago, I lost it with Tilly, one of our best carrot pickers. She refused not to put the bent, twisted and forked carrots in the sack. Like Tilly, most of us hate waste but seem powerless to prevent it. Supermarkets have their campaigns for wonky veg, invariably abandoned as quickly as the headlines they generate. The explanation lies in simplicity and, arguably, laziness; trade works best when products can be well defined, and it is easier to define perfection (straightness etc.) than levels of deviation from it. The brutal truth is that farmers get so little for a carrot that the hassle of defining acceptable imperfection, grading to the definition, and finding a customer willing to accept that grade is just not worth it. So the wonky ones get left in the field, and the waste goes on.
It was with some reluctance that we recently got involved with Dan Barber and his team of chefs from New York, who ran a month-long pop-up restaurant (WastED London) in Selfridges, cooking almost entirely what would otherwise have been thrown away. The cynic in me got a whiff of more marketing hype. The best dish was one of our kale stalks, flash-fired in the oven, impaled on a spike and theatrically brought to the table with a pair of scissors and a delicious ash mayonnaise. It was showy and very New York, but I managed to suppress my dour Devon farmer’s cynicism. The lettuce butts and fish cheeks were also excellent, as was at least 70% of the meal; the gastronomy, style and service were fantastic. My consciousness was raised and I left determined to look again at what we can do to further reduce waste at Riverford. It is already very low – if we don’t think it is good enough for you, there is a hierarchy whereby it goes to our restaurants, staff, local charities, then the cows – but we can do better.
As I made my way out onto Oxford street, walking between the jewels of Cartier, YSL and Channel, I found myself musing that most food waste is ultimately the result of consumer empowerment: the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it. Those with the most money have the most choice, and almost invariably cause the most waste. There was an irony in eating a meal devoted to reducing waste in Selfridges; at £100/ head, it was not exactly skip diving. I wonder what Tilly would have made of it.